Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why the Romance Genre Should Be More Like TV, Less Like the Movies

Here's the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott on the subject of television and movies:
I swear, I’m not trying to horn in on my colleagues’ territory. But the traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.

Mark Harris has a long piece in the current GQ about how Hollywood keeps making the same movies over and over, always trying to find the "right" demographic:
The rise of marketers has also brought on an obsession with demographics. As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, the American film-going populace is divided two ways: by gender and by age. Gender is self-explanatory (usually); the over-under dividing line for age is 25. Naturally, every studio chief dreams of finding a movie like Avatar that reaches all four “quadrants” of the audience: male and female, young and not. But if it can be made for the right price, a two- or even one-quadrant film can be a viable business proposition.

This is particularly bad news for women born before 1985, by the way -- we're old & the wrong gender.  If Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock isn't in it, chances are a major studio isn't making it.  They forget that we can tell a good movie from a bad one.  As much as I love those actresses, I won't got to see Eat, Pray, Love or All About Steve just because they're in them.

Of course TV executives are just as obsessed with ratings, demographics, and the appeal to certain subsets of the American television watching public.  The great thing about TV is that there's room for everything.  Period dramas on PBS, cooking shows on The Food Network, police procedurals on -- well, everywhere.  There's even room for smart writing about smart people.  Ross and I love The Big Bang Theory.

Now, it might look like the romance genre is like television in its diversity.  There are certainly a lot of different sub-genres.  But look again: is that paranormal you're reading that much different from the last six you read?  Or how about that Regency romance: how unique is the plot or characters?  And those of you who enjoy series romances -- how many authors, out of the hundreds published by Harlequin Enterprises, can you say write unexpected books, books that surprise you by being fresh and interesting?

I understand that there are constraints to every sub-genre, and I agree that there are some truly different and unusual books out there.  I have to wonder: are traditional publishers encouraging those authors, or do they have to build up a readership fast before the publisher pulls the plug in favor of the same-old-same-old?

I would be willing to bet a large amount of money that there are fresh, talented writers out there, who are writing unusual and compelling stories but finding it nearly impossible to get published because their manuscripts don't look like anything else that's already been published and sold well.

Déjà vu all over again.  When I was a law student, with good grades at a top ten law school, I literally couldn't get hired.  I went through two years of recruitment, with dozens of twenty-minute interviews, none of which led to call-back interviews.  Why?  Because I didn't look like, sound like, or behave like the other people those firms had hired.

Of course that's a defensible hiring policy: stay with what works.  It leads to a very homogeneous group of associates, though.  And I was "unusual" in two ways that didn't look good on the firms' recruitment brochures: I was overweight and I was old.  I ended up with a job at a top-tier Philadelphia law firm solely because I got a clerkship with a judge who had been a partner at that firm.  My judge knew about being different: she was the first woman appointed to the federal bench in the Third Circuit.

I'm retired from the law now but I want to write about lawyers, judges, law professors and the like.  And I want them to be smart.  (I don't rely on my own experience for that last element -- I always run legal arguments and scenarios past Henry, who genuinely is smart.)  Yes, in order to get published, my books need to be well-written.  Let's imagine that I'm accomplishing that.  What if I still get rejected because when a busy agent or editor reads the first paragraph or chapter of my submission, all she thinks is, "Boy. This sure is different."

Which is what gets a lot of scripts rejected in Hollywood.  They'd rather make another bad version of Top Gun (two good looking actors, action sequences, throbbing music video look, etc.) than take a chance on a quirky film like Inception.  (Yes, they made Inception.  But as Mark Harris points out, Hollywood would like to ignore Inception's success.  Because it's too "hard" to figure out what made it successful and thus too hard to clone it.)

By contrast, television currently is willing to experiment, to try off-the-wall stuff.  Here's Marshall Fine at HuffPo on the subject:
There are so many hours in a day and so many networks looking to fill them that strong, engaging fare seems to be on the rise. Apparently some networks finally decided, hey, maybe we can draw an audience with programming that doesn't insult viewers' intelligence. It's no more of a risk than something stupid.

Don't the numbers sound familiar?  If you'd read it as "there are so many romances published every year, and so many readers looking for something different...some publishers have decided, hey, maybe we can draw readers with books that don't insult their intelligence," wouldn't that have warmed your heart?

That's not what seems to be happening.  Partly, I suspect, it's a matter of dollars and cents.  There's a hell of a lot more profit in an hour of television than there is in any given book by a new author.  Next, the current cookie-cutter approach seems to work, so why take a chance on something that breaks the mold.  Plus, publishers are cutting down on the editors needed to find the unique gem in the slush pile.  But at the end of the day, I think it's undeniable that editors are saying no to books you and I would love to read.

P.S.  Yes.  Self-publishing "solves" the problem.  But how many books are you likely to want to read -- let alone buy -- to see if they're any good?  At least editors get paid to read submissions...

21 comments:

  1. It's true that movie producers and book publishers seem to like to make conservative investments in established formulas. But I also think that they are scrambling to find "the next big thing." If we are loud enough about what we want to read, maybe publishers will take a chance. They have in the past--paranormal, it's the new big thing! Amish, it's the new big thing! Steam punk, it's the new big thing!

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  2. Yes, but that's the point: publishers are looking for the "next big THING" not the next great writer or the next great story. The result is that the first "thing" that triggers the "next big thing" is good, maybe even great, but it's going to be followed by a lot more of that "thing" regardless of quality.

    I want great books, not so-so paranormals, drab Amish roms, limp steampunk books. Frankly, the category matters WAY less than the quality, just as I go to see a great movie, not any old movie with a great star or hot director.

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  3. What a great post. :) I don't watch much TV, mainly because I'm not interested in "reality TV" (I call it "voyeur TV" -- LOL). The few shows I do find intriguing usually don't make it very far, so I'm obviously not the core audience they are seeking.

    A recent example is "Terriers", which had two flawed but intriguing main characters, with some scenarios that may not have been new, but they were quirky and I was enthralled to see what would happen in each episode. When the show was cancelled, the head of the network said something along the lines of even though they knew it might have a hard time with ratings, they sincerely believed it was worth giving it a try. I was glad to hear someone actually say that, because I'm not sure there are many who even THINK that way.

    I never know if I'm going to like a book or a movie or TV show until I actually try it. In fact, the things I think I'm going to like are usually the ones that disappoint! Some things I've tried reluctantly, only to kick myself for not giving it a try earlier.

    I guess I need an "all you can read" buffet. :) So I can pick and choose my favorite types, and then get a little wild and pick something new and exotic for a change of pace. You just never know what you might find that way.

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  4. Donna -- I wish there were a way to harness the power of readers like us. Why can't publishers get us to read prospective "outside the box" manuscripts and report back to them on what we liked and why? I can imagine a lot of people who be happy to do that. It wouldn't be foolproof, but it would certainly garner a lot of good will.

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  5. Romances (and all genre novels) are by their very natural formulaic, but I agree that romantic publishers seem completely unimaginative when it comes to publishing romances that don't fit it. You can make the argument that readers know what they like, but the fact is even hard-core romance readers like me get burned out on Regencies and Paranormals.

    It seems like the big impetus to shake genre content up comes from TV. Like right around 1995, how I didn't even know what a "Regency" was, and then all of sudden they were all over the freaking place! Hm, what happened in 1995...? Oh yeah, the P&P miniseries.

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  6. I am not a TV show person. But there have been three series lately that caught my attention and held:

    Ugly Betty (for the first couple of seasons; the writer's strike killed that)

    Men of a Certain Age

    Raising Hope

    And they all have one thing in common: Quirky characters and/or characters who struggle. No laugh track (yay!). No blurgh husband with hot wife. No blurgh STUPID husband with hot GENIUS wife *pokes eyeballs and eardrums out*.

    Erm. I had a point... I'll come back when I find it.

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  7. Heidenkind: That's interesting -- my peak period for reading Regencies was in the 1980s with Joan Wolf, Joan Smith, Mira Stables, Elizabeth Mansfield & a host of other Signet Regency and Coventry authors. (My great regret was not liking Mary Balogh back then -- I'd have all her early Regencies now and those things are EXPENSIVE used!)

    So maybe there was a huge uptick in Regencies after Colin Firth stripped his shirt off in P&P, or maybe you just noticed them more. I'm kind of hoping it was the former. That way, we might have a wealth of Edwardian romances to enjoy after Downton Abbey made such a splash on the scene!

    Moriah -- Definitely quirky. Which is a good thing. :-)

    I tend to go for smart characters solving tricky puzzles in smart ways: House, The Good Wife, Drop Dead Diva (zaftig attorney? I'm all over it, even if she's a zillion times prettier and more talented than I ever was), The Big Bang Theory, etc.

    So, tell me -- do you think there are enough quirky characters in the books you read? Because I'm not finding novels enough smart characters solving (romantic) problems in smart ways. A few, but never enough. (Whereas, I do feel I have enough good TV to watch.)

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  8. But don't you think that readers would soon tire of books that didn't in some way conform to the formula of romance fiction? I'm not sure that readers of romance fiction really want that kind of venturing from what fits the mold. Isn't it, in a way, the sameness of it that satisfies, the assurance that endless repetitions brings?
    Also, in my thinking, there's a great difference between investing time reading a book and investing an hour watching an episode on TV. What we watch doesn't engage us in the same way as what we read, and is far more ephemeral even when it does. Are reading and watching truly comparable?
    dick

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  9. Dick -- I'm not sure I know what "formula" you have in mind for romances. To my mind, you have (usually) a couple, some conflict hindering their romance, a resolution to that conflict, and a happy ending. Surely that leaves ACRES of room for variation and originality.

    In the television business, a producer with a track record and an interesting idea can suggest something that seems off-the-wall. Done well, it's a hit.

    In the movies, a producer with a track record and an interesting idea is shot down unless there's a hook to grab the right demographic. That's Harris's point about Inception: the studio let Christopher Nolan make it to keep him happy and they weren't wildly pleased it was a hit because they don't know why it was a hit and thus can't clone it.

    And I have to disagree about our commitment to TV shows. I watch certain shows with far greater fervor and anticipation that I bring to almost any author's series. Frankly, the only writer who's books are on Must Read NOW status for me is Julia Spencer-Fleming -- and she writes mysteries. But make me miss an episode of Castle or The Good Wife? You'll get hurt if you try! :-)

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  10. 1/2 (possibly 3) since it won't let me post more than 4,096 characters...

    So, tell me -- do you think there are enough quirky characters in the books you read?

    I think I'm going to re-tread some of my reading and publishing history to explain the answer to that question, which is, quite simply, HELL NO.

    I started reading romance ~11-ish, I think. Somewhere between "You Light Up My Life"/"Come Sail Away"/"Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Call Me"/"Don't Bring Me Down"/"The Rose". I read a sweet Harlequin whose reference point of "lovemaking" as being a tepid kiss confused the hell out of me, and went straight for Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss. It was shelved in General Fiction at the library, which was where I got all my books. I simply went through and picked up spines that looked interesting. It didn't have much of a summary, but I got a clue from the pic on the front.

    And I was off. You know what I got from bodice rippers? That women were supposed to be adventurous and at least ATTEMPT to take control of their own lives, to be unceasingly strong and indefatigable, to be fearless, to be enterprising and imaginative. It didn't matter to me that they were REacting instead of ACTING because I was a teenager and had even less power than they did--and I wasn't getting taken to a Turkish harem, powdered and pampered and sexed up in MY powerlessness. In their context, for their time-frame, they were some seriously kick-ass non-whiny bitches. (So why that's my reaction to the damnation of the bodice rippers is sometimes so extreme; I don't know what books everybody else was reading, but I was reading female empowerment stories.)

    I read a whole bunch of other stuff, too, though, and over time, it all morphed in my head. So by the time I started writing (and then submitting), my stories and characters were off by a little bit. Honestly, I thought it was me, not telling the story right. I got four rejections of the "I fought to buy this book, but..." type. And then I was done. Done writing it and done reading it.

    Kinsale was the last romance writer I remember who had any impact on me. Kristin Hannah, whom I didn't follow to women's fiction. I read a lot of women's fiction, not knowing it was NOT romance. Everybody's happy in the end? Ding-Romance. That was why all those near-miss rejections stung so much. I couldn't figure out where I was going wrong.

    This culminated in 1999. I think. It was Amanda Quick who did it to me. After the 34th installment of the same fucking book she'd been writing for the last 10 years, I was done.

    Anyway, I had already stopped reading romance by the time I quite writing it. I hadn't meant to stop reading it. It was just that when I'd to Wal-Mart with $6 burning a hole in my pocket, I didn't find anything interesting. So I hit the library and I gorged on general fiction writers like I did in the 8th grade. I discovered Neal Stephenson and Umberto Eco and Tom Wolfe (you'll hear me say those names together over and over again, because it's my literary perfect storm).

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  11. 2/2 (No 3.)

    And then I couldn't go back to romance. I tried. And in that time, I apparently missed some "golden age." Balogh, Ivory, people I'm now catching up on. I apparently REALLY tried, because when I moved to this house in 2005, I found a box of romance novels I'd bought and read, and didn't remember either having bought them or read them, but I knew I had. I made my husband go get me a romance novel when I was in the hospital for baby #2. Blurgh. And not because I was suffering from an episiotomy ultimately caused by a little too much romance. Some of these books have the names of now very well-known and well-loved and lauded romance novelists, and they were completely forgettable.

    The heroines didn't have spines--or not like the ones in the bodice rippers. They didn't go on grand adventures--spirited/forced away or not. Even the most (faux)feisty amongst them were milquetoasts. The sex was hotter/more explicit, but the circumstances were more Puritanical and judgmental. Trust me, after Anne Rice's Beauty series, it's ALL more judgmental and Puritanical.

    I kept trying off and on, but I just couldn't find ANYTHING and, 10 years after Amanda Quick pissed me off, I picked her up again to see if anything had changed and...nope. Same story. Same contraceptive device (unloading in a discreet handkerchief).

    Here's the thing: I didn't care enough to go digging in romance for anything better. Because I hadn't been reading romance (and I'm a solitary reader anyway), it never occurred to me that there might be romance communities online and further, I got my book recs from people in my other internet communities. I just didn't hang out with readers.

    I'll spare you the details of my return to writing, but I still wasn't reading romance, even though I identify as romance reader AND writer.

    So I've been tracking my reading since 2008, now, when I published my first book. http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/reading. The things I truly enjoy are what *might* be termed romance (loosely) in that it has an HEA. I'll read anything Bettie Sharpe writes because she hits my buttons just right. I was a marginal Kristan Higgins fangirl, but that didn't feel like romance. I tried to give romance (and especially epubs) a chance. Really I did, but...

    ...it's still mostly the same and now I REALLY don't have time to go tracking down exceptional reads, especially when the romance community of readers is so young (and I mean, that they haven't been reading romance for long and so everything is new to them). I pick up a book that's unique or whatnot and...yawn. BTDT and better way back when.

    @Dick:

    I keep seeing you say the same thing about the formula over and over again, but IMO, that formula (outside of Harlquin) is a relatively new and ARTIFICIAL construct. That's why I STOPPED reading romance mid-90s. It BECAME that way. I WATCHED it become that way.

    (Aside: I think the no-head-hopping rule--and a bunch of other "rules"--is just a fad.)

    What you're seeing is readers in various stages of their romance life dropping off and complaining after they start seeing the artificiality. The only people with a real formula and a reason for its existence and somewhat strict adherence to it is category romance--and that's as it should be.

    The rest? No excuse. Fear? Ignorance? Apathy? I don't know, but I'm as in love with and disenchanted with romance as I ever was.

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  12. Moriah -- Someone who used to work for HQN told me that they'd done sufficient market research to know their "average" reader: High school or maybe partial college education, politics right of center, lower socio-economic statum, and likes Nascar. (Well, we could have guessed that last one...)

    I'm hypothesizing the next stage in the marketing logic, but it's probably like Mark Harris says about Hollywood: HQN might recognize that some readers are richer, more liberal, less religious, and/or have advanced degrees, but if they aim their series books at the Nascar Mom, they'll make most of their money that way.

    And if they try something different, they might risk alienating the Nascar Mom readers.

    Now, that's series roms published by any of several HQN imprints. What about other publishers? Well, the stories I hear -- yes, only anecdotal evidence at best -- suggest that more editorial decisions are made from fear than courage. As your experience bore out: "I really wanted to buy this..." or "I urged the acquisitions editor to trust me..."

    Do I know this for a fact? Of course not. But what I know is that when I go to a big box store, I stare at a ton of books with no sense that any of them are anything new or different. With a couple hundred titles on the shelves at any given time (even allowing for the Nora Roberts' reprints), surely there's room for the quirky and intelligent?

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  13. ...surely there's room for the quirky and intelligent?

    Room. That's another thing I've been thinking about lately.

    I took a little jaunt to a bookstore at the opposite corner of the metro from me because said bookseller went off on a Twitter tantrum (twantrum) lambasting authors who put Amazon links on their web pages.

    The store was kind of medium-sized, as indie bookstores go, and they had quite a bit of shelf space for romance...

    ...but it was all Nora Roberts, Stephanie Laurens, Georgette Heyer, Christine Feehan, etc etc etc. In other words, there wasn't a "new" or "newish" author to be had. They didn't seem snotty about romance, but it was clear their buyer was a) either catering to his clientele or b) didn't really know anything about romance to make informed decisions, so stuck with the old stand-bys. Was there physical room for quirky and intelligent? Sure. Will it be used? No.

    Now that Borders has one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel (and its reputation is that of being very romance friendly), there's less physical room.

    You probably think I'm being too literal, but not really.

    When every slice of shelf is used, it has to be used efficiently, i.e., what sells.

    There is NO ROOM in a publisher's profit margin to try something new and different and amazing, particularly if they have no intention of publicizing it and depend on the author to use her advance to do this.

    But I will say that I find that this:

    P.S. Yes. Self-publishing "solves" the problem. But how many books are you likely to want to read -- let alone buy -- to see if they're any good? At least editors get paid to read submissions...

    ...negates any sympathy I might have had for the situation.

    First, the situation is what it is, and saying, WHY CAN'T IT BE DIFFERENT? is an exercise in futility. During my querying dark days, my mother said to me, "Why are you basing your goals on decisions someone else has to make?"

    Now, think about why those decisions get made, and how many people are waiting for the decision to be made in their favor and how many slots there are available.

    Yeah, I was rejected on four manuscripts for four entirely different but equally bizarre reasons. Am I bitter? Naw. It got me here and I like it here.

    Second, this post really isn't about you, the buyer. It's about you, the writer, and why people aren't buying what you're selling. So saying, "Are YOU going to pick up a self-pubbed novel..." is kind of a dodge. People have. They do. They will. I'm living proof of that. You just have to have a lot of faith in your work. Most unpublished writers who've spent years on the query wheel don't. They probably never will because the subtext (and not so sub) of remaining unpublished is, "Your stuff's crap."

    Third, if it is about you, the buyer, then maybe you'd find it worth your time to trudge through the sludge. I couldn't say. There are some gems out there. I'd say the odds of finding a gem amongst dross have to be equal to the odds of finding a quirky and intelligent romance amongst the shelves at Borders. If there's anything left.

    All that said, these days, I'm pretty sanguine about the lack of what I want to read on the romance shelves. I have a TBR pile the size of Everest, and a Kindle attached to a credit card, and a head full of imaginary friends. If nothing else, I can write my own entertainment. I won't be hurting for anything anytime soon.

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  14. Moriah -- As far as I know, everyone who writes romances reads (or read, past tense) romances. I dunno, maybe writers are crankier readers -- I know I am! -- because of the effort we put into writing. But I don't want to give up reading romances. I just want more choice.

    And yes, there are lots of books in my TBR too, many of which I'm sure I'll like and enjoy. But will I like and enjoy them because they're quirky and intelligent and different or because they're like other books I enjoyed?

    And yes -- Lord yes! -- I find the glut of interchangeable romances at the big box stores frightening. I was saying at another blog that I wish indie bookstores hired someone to read reviews online and in RT & PW so that she could recommend which romances the store should stock and thus recommend. I'd shop at an indie store that did that.

    But the more I think about it, the more I think the entire industry is skewed heavily toward romance novels being a fungible commodity and not individual works of original fiction. The packaging suggests a strategy of sameness, the venues for sales is more like food than fiction, and publishers do little to tease apart the hundreds of authors who aren't Nora Roberts or Stephanie Laurens (who, to be perfectly honest, I get confused with half-a-dozen other authors).

    What's that joke about how you turn around an ocean liner -- very slowly? Well, that's what this feels like to me. If self-published authors like you can start a grassroots movement -- just by producing great books without commercial publishers -- that starts the ship turning, I'm all for it.

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  15. I just saw "Just Go With It" with my mom today. She loved it. Meanwhile I didn't hate it, but I'm not about to shell out money to own it. It was funny, but it wasn't different... not really from other rom-coms with kids and raunchy humor. I'm still trying to figure out why it got 3 out of 4 stars in the paper.

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  16. Magdalen and Moriah, you two provide the best food for thought. I'm so glad to know you. I worked inside the TV biz for mumblety years and watched the pinheads in charge of programming play the me-too game. If they're finally starting to broaden their thinking I may have to turn my TV back on.

    Diana

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  17. I keep discovering wonderful new-to-me authors who are reissuing their backlist titles digitally. I can't understand why some of them weren't/aren't more popular. Megan Chance's 'The Portrait' is truly original. Why aren't more books like this published?

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  18. @Magdalen: You outline the formula in the same way I would. However, I disagree that it allows for endless variation, except in particulars. The basics of it remain nearly immutable--meet, conflict, resolution, HEA. I can't imagine an author who sits down to write a romance NOT knowing in advance that it will describe a relationship with conflict to overcome that will nevertheless end with an HEA. The conflict may include consideration of other things--such as alcoholism, abuse, whatever--but in the end, the consideration of those other matters will make no difference in the ending, which will be an HEA. And I think that's exactly what romance readers want, regardless whether they choose to read Harlequins, Putney, Beverley, Chase or whomever. That's what I meant when I said they would reject what doesn't reiterate, repeat, and conform.
    dick

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  19. @Dick

    meet, conflict, resolution, HEA

    Dude. You and Joseph Campbell need to get together some time.

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  20. @SarahT

    You just made me drop $6. Damn you. Maybe...

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  21. @Moriah Jovan

    I hope you like it!

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